As millions of Syrians flee their homeland to neighboring countries amid a bloody civil war and staggering violence inflicted by the Islamic State, Lourans Samaan didn't want to spend his life in a refugee camp or take his chances getting accepted into whatever European country consented to take him.
Instead, the 19-year old Syrian Christian from the embattled city of Homs wanted to go to the United States, where his brother lives, and find work.
For a refugee like Samaan, however, that trip is not as simple as just jumping on a plane. It requires thousands of dollars and taking a circuitous route through a large swath of Latin America before ending far from the U.S., when he and four other Syrians were detained in Honduras with falsified Greek passports.
"He just decided to go anywhere safe," one of Samaan's brothers in the United Arab Emirates told Reuters.
Samaan's story is both commonplace and extraordinary among the 4.4.million Syrians who have left their country since the start of the civil war in 2011. Common in that he is searching for a better, safer life; extraordinary because he is one of the few – so far – who have chosen that particular path in search of that life.
"The world has never had a shortage of desperate people trying to leave their country in search of a better place," Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, told Fox News Latino. "And the U.S. is a magnet for people from around the world."
While traditionally the smuggling routes throughout Latin America have been used exclusively by people from the region to cross the U.S.'s southern border, in recent years there has been a growing trend of migrants from other parts of the globe – Syrians being only the latest – joining with travelers fro countries like Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.
According to the Associated Press, more than 145,000 people from countries other than Mexico were detained along the U.S.-Mexico border during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2015. While the overwhelming majority of them were from Central American nations, a growing number come from more far-flung locales, including Syria.
The latest U.S. Census data shows that 147,000 Chinese migrants and 129,000 Indian migrants came to the U.S. in 2013 – the last year for which data is available – surpassing Mexico, which had only 125,000 migrants.
Being smuggled to the U.S. is a journey that can take years and cost thousands of dollars – with Syrians paying around $10,000 to human smugglers, while Chinese are forced to dish out as much as $20,000. And payment is no guarantee of a safe arrival in the U.S.
Extortion, kidnapping, drug cartel violence and health risks like extreme dehydration have long plagued migrants making their way north to the U.S. All this is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of migrants from other regions don't speak Spanish.
"There is no shortage of unscrupulous groups that will take advantage of whatever group is depending on them," Arnson said.
Smugglers use a combination of shipping routes, flights and various forms of ground travel to shuffle migrants to Latin America and, from there, ferry them into the U.S. using a pipeline of human smuggling contacts that is facilitated by countries with lax immigration policies, officials expecting pay-offs and frequently falsified documents like the ones found on the Syrian migrants in Honduras.
"This is a pattern we've seen for a couple of years," Marco Rosenblum, deputy director of the Migration Policy Institute's U.S. Immigration Policy Program, told FNL. "There's a tremendous amount of people in the world looking for a place to go."
The routes to the U.S. differ greatly depending on where a migrant starts his or her journey. The five Syrians in Honduras travelled from Lebanon to Brazil, then overland to Argentina, then to Costa Rica before being finally stopped in Honduras.
Thanks to the Ecuadoran government waiving visa requirements for foreigners and granting an automatic 90-day stay to all nationalities in 2008, that Andean nation is generally the first stop for Chinese migrants hoping to travel furtively to the U.S. Frequently they travel next to Mexico City, up to a border town like Tijuana and then across into the U.S.
Although some migrants fly into Colombia and Venezuela, most Indian human smuggling networks base their operations in Guatemala, despite U.S. pressure to crack down on such activities.
"These are very sophisticated transnational smuggling groups, and, with the ability to charge up to $20,00 a person, they can afford the technology and expertise to run these operations," Rosenblum said.
Fear of terrorists entering the country – especially in the wake of deadly terror attacks recently in France, Lebanon and Mali – has cast more light on the human smuggling problem and the dangers that accompany it. In the past week alone, more than 20 Syrians have been apprehended by authorities in Paraguay, Honduras, Costa Rica, the U.S. and on the Dutch Caribbean island of St. Maarten.
None of them appear to have any links to known terrorist groups, but that hasn't stopped people from worrying that extremists will use these smuggling pipelines to enter to the U.S., and that the handful of Syrians now at our borders will soon become a surge of people from the Middle East making their way to the U.S. via Latin America.
"There are so many people leaving Syria now," Shaina Aber, policy director for the National Advocacy Office of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the U.S., told the Washington Post. "It's not surprising that some are making their way around the globe the best they know how."
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